Stop losing sleep over sleep


Time shift: During the pandemic, data showed that people who work from home sleep about 30 minutes later in the mornings and get more overall sleep. — 123rf

AMERICANS have started sleeping more than any time in the last 20 years, says a new survey of the way we use time. But wait – a new Gallup poll says Americans are more stressed and sleeping less. Can both headlines be right?

A closer look shows that the Covid-19 pandemic precipitated a seismic shift in time use for some Americans, but it did not change a longstanding national sleep problem. The people with the most gruelling, sleep-killing jobs did not reap any of the post-pandemic sleep bonus. Others are spending more time in bed, but tossing and turning.

The two surveys measured somewhat different things. The data showing Americans are sleeping more comes from the American Time Use Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Labour Statistics and the Census Bureau. It asks a sample of people to catalogue what they do all day.

During the pandemic, that data revealed a vast increase in the number of professional and office workers doing their jobs from home. And people who work from home sleep about 30 minutes later in the mornings and get more overall sleep, said economist Victor Vernon at SUNY Empire State. The work-from-home trend helped America’s average nightly sleep to increase by 10 minutes between 2019 and 2022. That accelerated a steady rise in sleep times that dates back to 2003.

For those who started working from home during the pandemic, some of the extra sleep time came out of time previously spent on grooming and commuting, which together take a whopping 89 minutes per day on average for people working away from home.

The new Gallup poll questioned people more directly on sleep and stress, and showed a sudden change not seen in the other survey – since the pandemic, people have become less satisfied with the quality and quantity of sleep they’re getting. In 2023, 57% of Americans said they would feel better if they got more sleep, up from 43% who felt that way back in 2013.

And even more worrisome, the number getting less than five hours has increased to 20%, up from about 15% in previous years. (Sleep experts say most of us need at least seven.)

One potential cause: the US National Institutes of Health reported that 50 million to 70 million people suffer sleep disorders. The most common of those is insomnia, said Dr Renske Lok, a sleep medicine specialist at Stanford University. Insomnia is associated with stress and mental health problems. The Gallup data shows stress is higher than it’s been in 30 years, with nearly half of respondents saying they experienced frequent stress. Mental health problems have also risen since 2020.

Perhaps part of the shift can be found in other time-use changes associated with the pandemic. People also started spending more time in front of screens, for example, which can interrupt sleep if used too close to bedtime. And more time spent alone could contribute to mental health challenges like stress and depression, which can interrupt sleep.

Dr Mathias Basner, a sleep expert at the University of Pennsylvania, said increased use of fitness trackers is also making people aware of sleep problems they never knew they had. That is causing some to fall into a vicious sleeplessness circle.

Worrying about getting too little sleep can set up a feedback loop, said Stanford’s Dr Lok.

“The second you can’t fall asleep, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I really want to fall asleep, but I can’t fall asleep,’” she said.

It’s something many of us have experienced the night before a big presentation or competition. When it happens, a lot of specialists call it “orthosomnia”, said Dr Basner. But work, Dr Basner added, remained the biggest imposition on our sleep. People need a certain amount of time to relax and unwind in different ways, so pushing extra hours on employees comes out of their sleep time.

Shift work often forces people to try to defy their bodies’ natural sleep cycles. Our sleep cycles depend not just on how long we’ve been up, but also on the time of day, said Dr Lok. For most people, night shifts, rotating shifts or unpredictable shifts are incompatible with the human circadian rhythm.

According to a new study published in PLOS One, working outside the usual 9am to 5pm pattern takes a long-term toll on people’s mental and physical health. The study used data on health, sleep and work patterns for 7,000 people born in the 1960s, starting when they were 22 and spanning the next 30 years. Those who spent the most time on night shifts or “volatile” shifts were the most likely to report a deterioration in their mental and physical health by the time they turned 50.

It’s hard for people with rotating or unpredictable shifts to get enough sleep, quantity or quality, said the study’s lead author, Professor Wen-Jui Han at the NYU Silver School of Social Work. Those same people often had low-paying jobs with few benefits – and the health toll of those factors could not be untangled. These are truckers, cashiers and various blue-collar workers propping up our 24-hour economy. They have not got any sleep bonus from the work-at-home trend – though they’re the ones who need additional Zs the most.

Scientists are happy that people are taking the dangers of sleep deprivation seriously – but say we should not take it so seriously that we lose any sleep over it. —Bloomberg

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